The biological basis of orchestra seating

Many cultural conventions appear like the result of historical accidents. The QWERTY – keyboard is a typical example: the technical requirements of early typewriters still determine the computer keyboard that I write this text on, even though by now technical advances would allow for a far more efficient design. Some culturally accepted oddities, however, appear to reflect the biological requirements of human beings. The way musicians are seated in an orchestra is one such case, but the listener is, surprisingly, not the beneficiary.

When one goes to a concert one typically sees a seating somewhat like the one below: strings in the front, then woodwinds further back, then brass. What is less obvious is that, in general, higher pitched instruments are seated on the left and lower pitched instruments on the right. The strings show this pattern perfectly: from left to right one sees violins, violas, cellos and then basses. Choirs show the same pattern: higher voices (soprano and tenor) stand left of the lower voices (alt and basses). Why is that?

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orchestra; seating arrangement; Nijmegen; Nijmegen studenten orkest

An orchestra I have personally performed with.

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It turns out that this is not a historical accident but instead a biological requirement. Diana Deutsch has used a series of audio illusions which all showed a curious pattern: when you present two series of tones each to one ear, you have the illusion that the high tones are being played to your right ear and the low ones to the left ear. In case you don’t believe me, listen to this illustration of Deutsch’s scale illusion:
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Apparently, there is a right ear advantage for high tones. So, seating the higher instruments on the left side (as seen on the photo) makes complete sense as this way musicians on stage tend to hear higher tones coming from their right. However, from the point of view of the audience this is actually a really bad idea as their right ear advantage is not taken into account. It turns out that orchestra seating arrangements are not favouring the hearing of the audience or the conductor but instead the musicians!
The right ear advantage for high tones is even mirrored in musicians’ brains. We know that the right ear projects mostly to the left auditory cortex and vice versa for the left ear. So, one would expect that people who play high instruments have trained their right ear / left auditory cortex the most when they practiced their craft. These training effects should be mirrored in differences in cortex size. This would mean that people sitting on the left in an orchestra have bigger left auditory cortices. In a fascinating article Schneider and colleagues showed that by and large this is the case: professional musicians who play high instruments or instruments with a sharp attack (e.g., percussionists, piano players) tend to have greater left auditory cortices than right auditory cortices. Their figure says is all.
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Schneider; orchestra; seating; brain; Heschl's gyrus; primary auditory cortex; cortical size

How the brains are seated in an orchestra.

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The orchestra seating arrangement mirrors not only the listening biases of most human ears but on top of that the brain differences between musicians. By and large, the orchestra is organised according to biological principles. Thus, not all cultural conventions – like the seemingly arbitrary seating arrangement of orchestras – have their roots in historical accidents. Cultural oddities are sometimes merely down to biology.

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Deutsch, D. (1999). Grouping Mechanisms in Music The Psychology of Music, Second Edition, 299-348 DOI: 10.1016/B978-012213564-4/50010-X

Schneider P, Sluming V, Roberts N, Bleeck S, & Rupp A (2005). Structural, functional, and perceptual differences in Heschl’s gyrus and musical instrument preference. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 387-94 PMID: 16597790

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Figures:

1) Nederlands: Symfonieorkest Nijmegen in de grote zaal van de Vereeniging, The SON photo library, via wikimedia

2) as found in Schneider et al., 2005, p. 392

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56 comments

  1. I’ve been singing in a choir for 9 years and also played the violin in an orchestra, but I have never even spared a thought for why the choir/orchestra sits like it does! Thanks for the insight. It’s a lovely and very informative post!

  2. That’s fascinating. I wonder though, since I’ve been the person playing the higher instruments in an concert orchestra (non-violins) if it makes more sense from the musician’s standpoint because we tend to hear the higher pitched sounds easier, so it lends to a better balanced orchestra?

    1. Thanks for sharing your thought. I am not sure, unfortunately, against what you want to balance with this seating arrangement. Overall, the seating arrangement appears to favour the musicians. So, yes, the whole thing does indeed make more sense from a musician’s standpoint.

  3. These results are not true cross-culturally, and the information on choir arrangement is flat wrong. This is the seating arrangement in WESTERN cultures. In non-Western ensembles, such as Gamelan groups, it’s reversed. There is more than a little study about how different cultures process information biologically indicating differences in the right/left brain hemisphere reliance, as well as cross-coordination.

    Vocal ensembles are arranged according to the requirements of the music being performed. If the group is doing exclusively 16th Century Polyphony, they will be arranged SATB-SATB-SATB by height (quartet formation) to unify the sound, and with double-choir works, people will move apart depending which group part they are to sing. Other choirs will have Basses at the back, to facilitate ease of view of the conductor, since men tend to be taller, or because it puts them closer to the edge of a bandshell structure. Lower frequencies move more slowly through air, and are perceivably less directional, so bandshell proximity also unifies sound that is sung.

    1. I am very open about where I get my information from. So, I am curious about your sources. Could you please give the reference for the claim that there are cultural differences ‘in the right/left brain hemisphere reliance’? This claim is entirely new to me.

      Concerning choir or music group arrangement I think that various pressures act on how positions are allocated to different instruments/voices. For example, ease of viewing (as mentioned by you), room shape, some cultural oddities (social hierarchy or whatever). The claim in my post is that one pressure is the right ear advantage for high tones. It appears to me (and Diana Deutsch as well as Schneider et al.) that this pressure is mirrored in the modern seating arrangement of orchestras. This does not mean that exceptions are impossible.

      1. Thanks for asking, Richard. It was too many years ago, back in the 1980s when I was taking college orchestration classes, for me to remember which text sources supported our professor’s lectures. I do apologise for my inability to remember it. The last academic I heard it from was Robert Drasnin, in UCLA lectures from the late 1990s.

        If you look at “full” orchestra seating templates (100+ pieces), they aren’t consistent regarding where all the low and high-pitched instruments are sat. Yes, usually violins 1&2 are on the left / violas-cello-bass on right, but tympani (lowest of the pitched instruments) might be dead center, left OR right along with the rest of the percussion, and pianos (which have a low range as well as high) back the high strings. Sound reinforcement techniques in current use tend to eliminate the acoustic effect of these splits anyway, as current concerts seek to create a more uniform sound no matter where listeners sit. “Guest” and solo instruments can be placed anywhere, as are vocal soloists.

        I do think your hypothesis is highly interesting. It just is different than what I was taught. We were exposed to Gamelan and other orchestras from Asia and India, and they had the general high-low instrumental arrangement reversed.

  4. Alfred Tomatis in the xxth Century made very interesting experiments on right and left ear in musicians and discovered that musicinas have a predominance in the right ear, finding very rare the predominance of the left and not in excellent ones.

      1. In his book The Ear and the Voice Alfred Tomatis explain his experiments (with singers and not only singer as the violinist Francescatti) which lead him to the conviction that we are asymmetrical in making music and we must be so. He make musicians play rendering one of the ear deaf for a little time so to see what happnes to their playing and he could see that without the right one it was nearly impossible good playing while without the left it was nearly better. He made many important discovery in the field of earing and the brain and the connections with voice and coulours and seeing and many centers are born in the world even if in the last part of his life those docoveries have taken a more philosophical direction and not just point of departures for others.

  5. Historically, the second violins were seated where you have the cellos, an arrangement I prefer.
    I always thought the brasses and percussion were placed at the rear because they were louder than the strings. Woodwinds would fall in-between.
    I’ve been singing in a choir of 90 or so, and we sit in a reversal of your pitch arrangement … bass/baritone are on the director’s left, then tenors, altos, and sopranos anchoring his right side. What does that say about the theory?
    Interesting, all the same.

    1. Neither article talks much about the choir. Schneider et al. do mention that singers’ brains look more like lower pitched instrument players’ though. So, the choir business should not be thought of as overly important in my view. It is simply my impression that in all the choirs I have been in (only 3, but all in different countries) higher pitched voices sat to the right of lower pitched voices. I thought this was a general pattern but it may well have been coincidence.

  6. What a difference a day makes. Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate all your reactions. I have no idea why it was exactly this post which was so successful but I am happy all the same.

  7. I wonder if this is why as a flute player, I play more slightly out of tune when my right ear is blocked by a cold or sinus infection. Interesting – I find the neuroscience of music such a fascinating subject as I play flute, piano, handbells and I sing. Thank you for sharing this!

  8. This is such a neat finding – I’d never really considered why orchestras seated their members in a particular pattern. Thanks for the bright idea:)

  9. I work on live sound production, so a 3 points:
    1. Having the seating arrangement suite the musicians is always to the benefit of the audience. Being able to hear the right part of the ensemble to facilitate your playing is one of the reasons that stage monitors are separate mixes in non-orchestra settings. This is to the benefit of a “tight” performance.
    2. Deliberately having the audience have the sound opposite to their natural neural strengths should contribute to a more “balanced” sound, as each side has to work equally to obtain its preferred tonal range.
    3. Listening audiences, of all music genres, are being ill served by constant exposure to “compressed” recordings of music over MP3, and internet play. The subtle difference in sound source location is lost, as well as the ability to enjoy the expression of small changes in dynamics, tone, and rhythm.

    Thanks for the great post.

    1. Thanks for your comment, ideamus. In my post I make the claim that, given the right ear advantage of human high tone hearing, one has to choose whether seating benefits musicians (orchestra seating as displayed) or audience members (opposite to what I displayed) or neither (all jumbled up). So, in order to balance the benefits one would have to arrange musicians more or less randomly.

      Concerning your third point, I believe that progress in band width, download speed and the demise of small digital saving devices spell the end to compressed recordings. But even if not, people appear to trade-off these sound quality issues with other benefits from mp3 etc. Their choice.

  10. Apparently (my muso husband advises) – the Berlin Phil always has their bass in the middle which achieves a better acoustic for the audience – although by the sound of your reading must mean an adaptation for the musicians
    Having sung in a choir where this was imposed I always struggled as I (an alto) would always be trying to listen for the soprano line. Whether this was right eared-ness or just to do with trying to follow the form of classical composition would be interesting to know.

  11. How interesting! I always thought that the instruments should be seated in order of their pitch, highest to lowest, so when we weren’t, I thought it was just random seating. Clearly not. :)

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